A Presentation: The Lure of the Blogosphere

NOTE: This was a presentation I gave at the PANOS-hosted workshop for female journalists, under the theme “Skills Building in New and Alternative Media” on the 3rd of October 2009.


THE LURE OF THE BLOGOSPHERE: Blogging as a journalist, woman and individual in Sri Lanka.

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I’m supposed to speak to you on blogging and the blogosphere – something I am fairly new to myself, but have quickly got quite addicted to!

MY STORY: Beginnings

I started blogging last year, around October, and it was for the most mundane of reasons – a bad break up. I felt I needed a release, I had been reading blogs for a while and decided that then was a bad a time as any to start writing. And I did – I wrote and wrote and wrote. It was all very personal at first but then, as the sting of the break up faded, I started to write about other things.

I have always loved writing. I have always felt that I sounded better on print than I did in real life! Words have come easily to me from the time I was a child: I would write stories endlessly – my essays in school were 20 odd pages long while the average kid wrote about half a page. I’ve kept a journal since I was 11 and still write in it, although admittedly, not as often.

Still, a blog is a whole different ball game. There are so many dimensions to it: There’s the anonymity issue, that weird dynamic between being private but public at the same time, and then there’s content. A blog can be about literally anything, so the possibilities are endless.

From my own experience, and judging from the experience of some others I know, starting a blog is always the hardest part of the process. I think people tend to put too much thought into it – they think it needs to have a set structure, that they need to write in it all the time and they don’t know if they have anything to say that could be interesting to other people. These were certainly my own concerns as well. I first thought of blogging when I was at University. I remember writing, re-writing and discarding draft after draft of what would be my very first blog post. And in the end, the pressure was too much and I couldn’t bring myself to get started at the time. It was only when the necessity to put my thoughts and feelings out there trumped all my preconceived notions about blogging, that it came to me easily.

MY STORY: My Job,  My Blog

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This necessity – in my opinion – came from my job, which is as a journalist at Young Asia Television. This profession really makes you want to speak out, talk about important things, express your own opinions and basically get yourself out there. Though I didn’t start off writing about anything very socially relevant, I got into it later, and the reason for that I think, was my job and the passion it gave me to pursue topics that I found interesting or that I felt needed to be discussed.

I joined YATV about 1.5 years ago and it’s my first job. I neither studied nor planned to be a journalist. It just sort of… happened! I honestly didn’t think I’d enjoy it – I never had any interest in politics and – as ashamed as I am to admit it – I barely even picked up a newspaper before I joined! Still, I learned, slowly, on the job and started getting interested in and passionate about topics that I never even thought about before. And it’s when I let that interest and passion infuse my writing that I feel my readership increased.

MY STORY: What I Write About

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I can actually put a date on this. May 18th 2009. We all know what happened on that day! I wrote a post called ‘Tomorrow When the War Began’ and it proceeded to get the highest number of hits any of posts of mine had ever got.

While it’s fairly obvious that posts addressing any topic that’s ‘sexy’ will get more hits, I had decided as a general rule to stay away from any sort of political commentary on my blog. Mostly because I felt that I didn’t have enough knowledge or political convictions that were strong enough to be anything but on-the-fence about many issues. I honestly still feel that way! I still feel that there are huge gaps in my knowledge of the conflict and Sri Lanka’s political history, and that my opinions are, at best, half-formed. But in that first post about the war, I said precisely that, and I was overwhelmed by the response I got: people congratulating me for not taking sides, but for just being sensitive to the situation instead. For purely feeling it instead of just spewing out rhetoric about it.

Those comments really boosted my confidence. And I started to explore more topical issues but in the same way. I took political subjects and tried to humanize them instead of analyse them. I tried to keep things open ended, to ask questions with what I wrote instead of infusing my writing with an over-load of my own opinions. This allowed me to tap into my creativity but also explore my own feelings about difficult issues such as IDP camps (Barbed Wire), child conscription (The Choice), gender based violence (The Next Room), sexism (Attire and Temptation), and so on.

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I have not been a journalist for very long and still feel quite uncomfortable branding myself as such. I think being a journalist is more than working for a media organization – I think it’s something you grow into with time and experience. I also feel that this profession tends to train you to see everything as a story with an angle, and you are so intent on conveying it as such that you tend to lose track of your own immediate reaction to a certain situation. And while that’s alright up to a point, I think it’s still very important to be sensitive to what’s going around you on a personal level. Also, when you work in media, it’s very easy to get jaded, but writing – especially creative writing – is a good way to keep your perspective fresh and different, because you’re always looking for new ways to present what you write about. And that sort of links to what you do as a journalist – trying to find new ways to present old issues that need to be heard time and time again so that important issues are kept alive. Of course, there is only so much creativity you can infuse into a journalistic piece but I still believe that one can really compliment the other.

FEEDBACK: It’s All Good!

A lot of people – mostly non-bloggers – have asked me why I feel the need to put my thoughts out there. Why can’t I just write it down on paper or just keep it on my computer? Why not even just write to a newspaper? I never really had an answer for them but I’ve been thinking about it while preparing for this presentation and I think I can encapsulate it all in one word: interaction. That is what makes the difference.

When you put something on a blog, however personal, it is out there. It is public. It is for other people to read and comment on. And it creates a space for you to discuss things, get different perspectives from a wide range of people. One of my favourite things about blogging is the feedback I get for my pieces. Sometimes it’s good feedback, sometimes it’s downright nasty. But still, they are opinions and I thrive off that and I think any aspiring writer would.

For “Tomorrow When The War Began”:

“Kudos on one of the most compelling posts on your blog and also one of the best I’ve read on this issue on the web. Peacebuilders live in hope and risk disappointment.”

Sanjana Hattotuwa

For “Barbed Wire”:

“Mawkish and sentimental, with all the realism of a Colombo socialite who hasn’t gone within a hundred kilometres of an IDP camp”

Sancho Panza

THE FREEDOM OF THE INTERNET: Danger In Beauty

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A lot of people will say the beauty of the internet and blogging is the ability to be anonymous, to freely express whatever you think and feel, and the fact that it is truly a democratic space.

I agree with this view to some extent but I also feel that there is a danger in this beauty as well. It’s easy to be beguiled by the freedom of the internet, but I think it is also wise to be a little wary of it at the same time.

Especially living where we live and with our current media environment, as journalists, we need to be careful about what we say, we need to be held accountable for what we say and we also need to understand that even the best intentions can be misread or get us in trouble. Once you put it out there, it’s out there. Sure, you can press delete whenever you wish, but it can still do a lot of damage. I learned this very recently – the hard way – but I’m glad that it happened sooner rather than later.

It happened like this. I wrote a piece – a very positive piece – with the best of intentions, put it up on my blog but had to take it down almost immediately because certain people were afraid that I would endanger the initiative I was talking about and the people that it was trying to help. I felt terrible about this: embarrassed that something I thought would express positive energy and gratitude turned out to be a liability instead, and guilty that I may have actually endangered the future of this particular initiative.

At first I was upset and quite angry about it even – thinking it unfair – but I read and re-read my piece obsessively during the next few days and realized that I probably didn’t think it through enough and that I could have been more sensitive about certain things. It was just so personal to me when I wrote it that I lost track of what it would mean to put that information out there.

The moral of this story is that when you write, you must be careful. Many think that the internet cannot be policed but while it is difficult, it is not impossible.

Going back to that article I had to take down – a lot of people told me to omit the details that might cause a problem and put it up and I thought about it for a while but decided not to, because it would have changed the whole dynamic of the piece and reduced its value. I felt that putting it up with the changes would have been censoring myself more than not putting it up at all.  I guess I could have put the original article up, regardless, as it was my blog – but as a journalist and even just as a person, I felt I could not have lived with the potential consequences.

I cannot express the power of written words. But, as with any kind of power, it has to be used responsibly.

SELF-CENSORSHIP: Working Around It.

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This all ties into this dilemma of what to put out there and what to keep to yourself. Self-censorship has become a sad reality in Sri Lanka. Working in the media, I come across it every day, in every script I write. People are afraid to voice dissent or even talk about sensitive issues – and they are very right to be afraid. I am afraid myself and am constantly questioning and second guessing what I say.

We have seen enough evidence of what can happen when you write what you believe.

We are living in a time where opinions – unless they’re the ‘right’ ones, can be dangerous. It is easier to voice those opinions online, anonymously – true – but one must still be mindful that while it is harder to track someone down online, it still can be done.

It’s really hard to draw the line between what you should and shouldn’t say – especially in terms of online content. Some protect themselves with their anonymity – this is how I started – but what I wanted to say then was largely personal, which was why I preferred to remain unknown. Since I started writing on other topics, however, I started to tell people that it was my blog because I wanted to be recognized for my writing. It’s a choice that each and every person must make for themselves, but being anonymous should not give you license to be careless – both with yourself and what you write about. Especially when you write about something that could result, not in hurt feelings, but in actual, physical danger. The risks are too big; the consequences too unfathomable.

But don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating self-censorship by any means. As someone working in the media, I know there is nothing more frustrating than not being able to speak up on important issues that deserve critical, democratic debate. I agree with those who feel that, even in the hardest of times, self-censorship is not the answer. But I still feel that one must be careful.

There is no point placing ourselves in needless danger when we are amongst the few people willing to stand up for what is right. We are setting an example, and must stick around if we want to continue do so.

In the end, it’s all about being smart about it. Using language and words to your advantage and making a difference.

BLOGGING: As A Woman

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I do not really have much to say about blogging as a woman. I have been fortunate enough to have grown up with family, friends and colleagues who have always valued my opinions and what I had to say, and given me the opportunity to speak out when I wanted. But I do understand that not everybody is as fortunate as I am. I do understand that there are women who afraid to even have their own opinions or who are somehow being prevented from voicing them. Blogging is the perfect vehicle of escape from this stifling environment – for all the reasons I have discussed before – the anonymity, the power of words, the freedom of online space. Used correctly, it can be a perfect tool for empowerment, not just for women but marginalized communities in general.

TRADITIONAL MEDIA & CITIZEN JOURNALISM: A Blurring

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I want to end by speaking a bit about the blurs between journalism and citizen journalism – I say ‘blur’ because I really do feel that those boundaries or demarcations are getting hazier now. I’ve spoken to many journalists who seem threatened by citizen journalism – even as far as to fear for their jobs – but I disagree. Even if citizen journalism posed any real threat to traditional media practitioners, that could easily be offset by journalists themselves turning to newer technologies and networking sites such as blogs or Facebook or Twitter or YouTube to enhance their journalistic capabilities. It’s all about adaptability, and while this is obviously a personal choice, I feel that it is very important for especially the new generation of Sri Lankan journalists to take full advantage of what’s out there – especially in this country and this time in our history.

BLOGGING: Using the Window

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We deal in the business of circulating information and promoting independent thought, and even if that is getting more and more difficult to do today, we have to find a way. It is the path we have chosen for ourselves. As the old saying goes, when one door closes, somewhere another window opens. Let’s make the best of this window of opportunity.

Thank you.

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17 Comments Add yours

  1. RD says:

    A great piece in writing G12, very interesting and personal too. Thanks

  2. Dee says:

    Wow. excellent stuff. really enjoyed reading that.

  3. Delilah says:

    impressive. thanks for a good read as usual.

  4. Cadence says:

    Good Stuff Gypsy. As usual, a great read.

  5. citizen says:

    I am tempted to believe that blogging anonymously to escape suppression would help make women feel empowered, because I can see how being empowered by a means of communicating to r beyond one’s community and reaching out to the world can be liberating in a sense. But out of two prisoners – one who has learnt to work around the harsh realities of prison life and another who is fighting and potting to escape from it – who would be more aware of what “freedom” means?
    Perhaps you could also touch a bit on the historical significance of blogging… the fact that they – and the broader technological developments that have made blogs possible – have, for the first time in the history of Planet Earth (and quite likely the entire solar system) have given ordinary people a voice… and with that voice, the power to exercise their freedom of speech and free association. Who’s to say that at some point in the future, the offspring of this technology will enable people – individuals – to exercise their sovereignty without having to entrust it to a political class?

  6. Islander says:

    You are a sad woman gypsy. what makes you think you are a journo just because you work for an NGO Yellow journalism initiative called YA TV ? Can we atleast know if you are a member of the press council, institute of journalism etc ? What are your credentials babe ? Journo itseems. My foot !

  7. I hate long posts. But yours, are exceptions. Love your writing and can’t believe you haven’t even done a full 12-months yet! Feels like you’ve been here forever.

    Keep up the good work, and best of luck Gyp. ;)

  8. javajones says:

    Gosh! Amazing what a “bad break-up” can result in, huh?!! Got those creative juices flowing nicely and put you on a whole other trip. Nice pictures too…

  9. The longest post i’ve ever fully read.. :D

    Wish we had a video of the presentation.

    Always loved your writing.

    P.S your one of those kids i would have hated in my english class in skool.. :P

  10. thebohemiangypsy says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Islander – I have explained how I see myself as a journalist and admitted to feeling uncomfortable even calling myself one, given my limited experience. I have explained also that I haven’t studied journalism and that I am learning everyday, in a job that I love and am passionate about. In many ways, this is more valuable than any credential I could give you. So your comment has no basis because you seem to be implying that I am pretending to be something or someone that I am not. Also, it appears that you use internet space to spread bias and prejudice against people you do not know or understand. You do not even try to engage them in constructive and meaningful conversation – instead, you prefer to stereotype and rail against them instead. To your own detriment, I might add. Not cool.

    Citizen – As always, your comments are thought provoking. I think the predicaments of your two prisoners are more similar than you think. Blogging helps one ‘escape’ suppression, yes, but isn’t that the same as ‘working around’ suppression? If you can’t speak out in one medium, you simply find another. And for that purpose, blogging is ideal.

    As for the historical significance of blogs, what you say is perfectly true. My presentation had a time limit though so I couldn’t ramble on as much as I wanted to! I was only speaking from my own personal perspective – why I started blogging and what it means to me etc. Whether politics will be traded in for the technology one day – I don’t know, but it certainly is an intriguing concept!!! Thanks for that :)

    Serendib – Aw :) Thanks babe, that’s really, really nice to hear.

    Java – Yup, bad breakups are never *too* bad if some good comes out of it!!! All the same, I think I raised some eyebrows at the event when I said that! Lol.

    Lost Soul – A lot of kids hated me in English class :P Teachers loved me though, because my spelling and grammar has always been pretty good, so in the end they just got to read a good story, even if it was a little long!

  11. Jerry says:

    This actually had me reading till the end; while still waking up in bed.

    But anyway, don’t you think blogging as such still has a very small audience, locally? Most people still associate it with a bunch of nerds posting pictures of cats and talking about star wars. Getting that label off is going to take a while.

  12. thebohemiangypsy says:

    It’s changing Jerry – and pretty fast – along with other social media like Facebook and Twitter. I guess it’s all about the readership you build up and what you talk about. Cats and Starwars might mean the world to some. But other blogs which take a more journalistic approach can be very valuable to their readers and also to traditional media. A perfect example being that Sri Lanka’s Groundviews has been quoted/mentioned on BBC and in the NYT for its breaking stories.

  13. citizen says:

    Jerry has a point though – because only 10% (more or less) of Sri Lankans have access to the Internet and only a fraction of them use it for news, current affairs and social commentary – this space is still dominated by TV and Radio – by the increasingly paranoid “islander”s.
    hopefully, mobile Internet access will change things, but if blogging and new media is to have any hope of making a real impact in the short to medium term, the content will have to be available in Sinhala/Tamil as well and formatted for mobile devices… but wait… most popular mobile devices don’t support Sinhala or Tamil fonts.
    That’s a massive problem… so where do we start?

  14. thebohemiangypsy says:

    Mobile phones may not have Sinhala or Tamil fonts – but they are used by millions of Sinhala and Tamil speakers in the country. So all is not lost. Sure, things will have to change there, but in the meantime, there’s still a lot you can do with phones etc. Computer and internet access is a huge problem, yes, but hopefully that is changing. There are some really great initiatives out there, getting computers and internet to rural communities. Just look at http://www.horizonlanka.org. Thanks for the email and link by the way, it was an interesting read.

  15. Jerry says:

    Take a random bunch of people with net access. A nearly half still have a strange view of all this. News services are looked at as an extension of the traditional media and the rest are considered playthings. You can’t tell me twitter is considered a serious news source by many can you?

    Getting access out to people is all good but it takes a hellava long time. Even most mobiles people use can’t access the net. Although things ARE changing, albeit slowly…

  16. thebohemiangypsy says:

    Yes, it is changing. And it is changing around the world. Twitter has caught on around the world in the most incredible way. I would have never thought such a simple concept could achieve so much. But look at the recent protests in Iran over their elections – they were almost entirely fueled by Twitter. In countries where media freedom is being categorically cut down, Twitter and Facebook and blogs too no doubt, are providing people with free, democratic space. As for Sri Lanka, it’s up to the internet users – us – to use this space in a way that benefits our country and our politics.

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